I came to New Orleans this week for a political science conference, but arrived just in time for Hurricane Isaac. Seeing the hurricane lead-up and arrival from a downtown hotel was interesting to witness the contrast with Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. Since that time, the government has invested $10 billion in rebuilding the levees that protect the city of New Orleans from rising water.
At least in the early stages of the storm, this investment has turned out well. The rebuilt levees have held during the first day and are pumping water away from populated neighborhoods. The only levee that has failed is an older one outside the downtown area that was not included in the reconstruction effort. There are many such levees along the Louisiana coast that are at risk, demonstrating the need for additional infrastructure investment in this area.
Unlike the Katrina tragedy, local and state political leadership so far have performed well. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Governor Bobby Jindal have held regular press briefings where they detailed all the steps undertaken to protect citizens and offered advice on how people could protect themselves either by evacuating or staying safe inside their homes. Landrieu in particular handled himself very well and conveyed great confidence that local leaders were doing all they could to handle the Category 1 storm. Clear and regular communications are one of the most important aspects of disaster handling, and local leaders have done well on this front.
Downtown New Orleans still has electricity, which is an improvement over the Katrina experience. There are substantial power outages in outlying areas due to downed trees and powerlines. This reminds us that the electric grid continues to pose a major challenge not just during hurricanes but even with regular storms as moved through the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states this summer.
It is interesting to contrast the storm in Louisiana with Republican speeches lamenting the role of government and arguing the need to downsize the role of the public sector. During natural disasters, many people look to government for assistance on infrastructure, disaster relief, and ameliorating human suffering. Having Katrina headlines isn’t very good timing for the Republican National Convention because they remind voters that there still is a role for government in many areas.